Competitive intelligence companies cannot have it both ways

There are conflicting messages coming out of the competitive intelligence industry.

On the one hand, competitive intelligence companies are keen for what we do to be considered a mainstream research activity, and nothing to do with spying. The Wikipedia page for competitive intelligence starts off making this point:

"Competitive intelligence is an ethical and legal business practice, as opposed to industrial espionage which is illegal."

Why competitive intelligence needs to self-declare its ethicality has been covered aplenty elsewhere. Our industry makes a big point out of not being industrial espionage. Fine and dandy: we are not industrial spies.

Often, it is clients and journalists who are blamed for not understanding the difference. Articles like this one make competitive intelligence veterans sigh with frustration.

And yet, the blogs and social media streams of competitive intelligence companies are filled with links to articles about the CIA and other spy agencies, hacking and malware, government intelligence techniques and the like. But despite sharing the word "intelligence", there are few practical lessons we can learn from such activities. Competitive intelligence companies are not hackers, we do not bug targets, we do not own drones, we do not use fake passports, we do not kidnap people - the list goes on and on. Most of us do not even engage in the murky world that Kroll and its ilk investigate.

So why make the connection at all? A couple of reasons spring to mind.

First, spies are considered sexy, so there is a temptation to be sexy by (weak) association. That is why journalists compare competitive intelligence to espionage, so we cannot make those links ourselves yet complain when journalists make them. It is understandable to want to be James Bond, but espionage is unpleasant and, in the hands of civilians, illegal. We cannot just pick half of that equation.

Secondly, there is precious little proper competitive intelligence content to which we can refer. There are few competitive intelligence blogs. But instead of attaching ourselves to the espionage industry for additional material, we could attach ourselves to the market research, or consulting, industry. Even financial analysts such as Horace Dediu are of much greater relevance than any government intelligence news. Already we have a sister industry in librarianship to which we refer. The writings of librarians on using search engines or finding records are of actual use to a competitive intelligence analyst, unlike espionage. We already connect to some of these sources: we just need to do it to the exclusion of espionage sources.

Associating ourselves with the spy industry is pointless (we would learn little of real use), misleading (that is not what we do) and damaging to the claim that we are not corporate espionage. It is perhaps inevitable that from time to time we will do so, but not as a matter of course. Not if we want to continue claiming that what we do is not corporate espionage.